‘In the digital future, texts will be annotated visually, animated and illustrated like never before’
For my birthday this year I was given a 1947 edition of Samuel Pepys’diaries. This was post-war austerity Britain and materials were scarce, so the book is printed on thin “prayer book” paper and has an austere, two-colour paperback binding. But the book also contains dozens of exquisite black and white illustrations by EH Shepard, one of the greatest illustrators of the age.
Today Shepard is known chiefly for his illustrations to AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books and for his wonderful characterisations of Mole, Ratty and Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book. But, as his beautiful pictures of Pepys and his peers show, Shepard was more than a children’s book illustrator.
He was a consummate draughtsman with a loose, flowing line and a gift for composition. He was a brilliant political cartoonist, working for Punch on a weekly basis from 1921 to 1953 (my favourite political cartoon of his depicts a Nazi goose, in an iron helmet and uniform, solemnly ‘goosestepping’ into the Rhineland – funny and chilling in equal measure). And he wrote and illustrated a memoir, Drawn From Memory, that is a haunting evocation of an Edwardian childhood and one of the finest autobiographies by an artist ever written. What I love about Shepard’s work is that it doesn’t respect boundaries. While remaining consistent in style, Shepard’s skill at drawing allowed him to illustrate non-fiction, poetry, satire and autobiography with equal authority.
But times changed and, in the latter half of the 20th century, illustration went into decline. Children’s books that in Shepard’s day would have been automatically illustrated were deemed no longer to require an illustrator’s input. A case in point are the defiantly un-illustrated Harry Potter books. In newspapers and periodicals, Photoshop and montage replaced illustrators and cartoonists. No mainstream publisher these days would dream of commissioning illustrations to a new edition of Pepys’ diaries. In fact, by the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, illustration had vanished from adult literature more or less entirely. The new Martin Amis novel, Lionel ASBO, may warrant a stunning cover by the illustrator David Hughes, but God forbid any of his brilliantly acerbic drawings should grace the text.
Yet as the digital revolution gathers momentum, traditional print publishing is being forced to change. In this new age of austerity, as chill winds blow through publishers’ offices, we need illustrators of the calibre of EH Shepard more than ever. And they’re out there – look at Posy Simmonds’ wickedly perceptive novel Tamara Drewe, David Roberts’ brilliantly quirky illustrations to Mick Jackson’s Bears of England and Shaun Tan’s surreal and exquisite wordless story The Arrival. Like Shepard, these illustrators’ work reaches all ages.
As the Kindle’s dread grip on digital publishing is challenged by tablet computers and android smartphones, with their bright screens and high resolution, the need for illustration is growing. Newspapers such as the Guardian and the Observer, meanwhile, are expanding into the internet’s broad open spaces – spaces with plenty of room for illustration.
At the same time graphic novels, computer games and CGI animation are blurring the old distinctions and categories in publishing. In the digital future, texts will be annotated visually, animated and illustrated like never before. The austere ‘prayer book’ paper that permitted the space for Shepard’s illustrations to Pepys’ diaries is now being recreated in the digital era.
It is a space waiting to be filled by today’s illustrators.
Chris Riddell is Illustrator in Residence at the Edinburgh International Book festival. He and collaborator Paul Stewart introduce their new books Muddle Earth Too and Wyrmeweald: Bloodhoney tomorrow (August 13) at 10.30am, and at 8pm tomorrow, he talks to Neil Gaiman about his illustrations for a 10th anniversary edition of Gaiman’s Coraline